Introduction to Atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis describes an artery wall that thickens and hardens due to the invasion and accumulation of white blood cells.
What is Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis describes an artery wall that thickens and hardens due to invasion and accumulation of white blood cells leading to proliferation of smooth muscle cell forming a plaque, also known as atheroma. Atherosclerosis is the common cause of cardiovascular disease – heart attacks, strokes and peripheral vascular disease.
What is Atherosclerosis caused by?
Arteries usually harden and narrow as you grow older. The process speeds up through high-fat diets and cholesterol. There are two types of cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is also known as the bad cholesterol, which is carried from your liver to the body cells. If you eat food containing saturated fats, such as cakes, butter, cream and biscuits, LDL will increase and build up in the artery walls, causing plaques or atheroma. Increase in LDL can also be caused by drinking excessive alcohol or a sedentary lifestyle. The chances of arteries narrowing can also be increased by smoking. It damages your arterial walls, causing platelets to clump together to try to repair the damage. High blood pressure, diabetes and obesity are also risk factors. Interestingly, it has been shown that you are twice as likely to develop atherosclerosis if you have a parent, brother or sister (first-degree relative) who has similar problem.
What are the symptoms of Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis does not produce noticeable symptoms until your blood circulation is blocked.
Atherosclerosis at the periphery, such as the legs can show symptoms like pain that comes and goes, which is worsen when exercising. Other symptoms include numbness and sores at areas near the legs, or a change in the colour of the skin.
Blockage at the heart causing reduced blood supply, also known as angina, can leave discomfort in your chest. You may experience breathlessness, fatigue and dizziness.
Weakening of your blood vessels can also lead to aneurysm, a bulge in a blood vessel. The possible danger is the rupture of the aneurysm causing dangerous internal bleeding. This can cause sudden and severe pain or headache.
In cases where blood supply to the brain is blocked causing a stroke, a person may have the face fallen on one side, weak arms and slurred speech. Immediate urgent medical attention is required.
How is Atherosclerosis treated?
Lifestyle changes are very effective to reduce the risk of developing a cardiovascular disease from atherosclerosis. You should avoid foods that contain saturated fats and eat a small quantity of unsaturated fats as they will increase the level of good cholesterol. An active lifestyle involving regular exercise can help to lower your blood pressure. Choose activities that you enjoy doing so that it is easier to commit to it.
Medications can be taken singly, or in combination to treat the underlying causes. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, thiazide diuretics and calcium channel blockers can widen your arteries, lowering your blood pressure. You should, however, discuss with your GP regarding the possible side effects before taking the medications. Statins can also be taken to lower your blood cholesterol levels.
If atherosclerosis is affecting your important blood vessels, such as coronary arteries (which supply blood to the heart) or carotid arteries (which supply blood to the brain), you may need to undergo a surgery, where your GP will refer you to a vascular surgeon for further discussion about the pros and cons of the procedure.